The American Civil War was, arguably, the most important war our nation has ever fought. While the Revolutionary War fought for independence as an autonomous nation, the Civil War undertook the struggle for civil liberties, for personal freedoms, equality, and justice. In the end, the Revolutionary War laid the groundwork for our nation and the Civil War turned it into a reality, pulling the collection of colonies we had been into a country of unified states. Take a trip with your students, with your family, or with a group of friends to the sites that shaped a nation.
As the deadliest war to date, the Civil War left its mark all across the U.S., especially in the deep south and along the east coast. The war began April 10, 1861 when shots were fired on Fort Sumter outside of Charleston, South Carolina. The fort is open today for visits remaining in pristine condition.
Not all battlefields came out so untainted, particularly in the case of the first major battle, Manassas, otherwise known as Bull Run in Virginia. Two important battles were fought on this site, the first occurred in July 1861 and was the site where General Jackson earned the nickname “Stonewall.” Manassas National Battlefield Park leads walking tours through the fields where cannons remain lined up as if the soldiers only just stepped away. Watch the orientation film Manassas: End of Innocence to begin your tour and then explore the many walking trails surrounding the fighting field or take a look at the historic Stone House.
In April of 1862, nearly 24,000 lives were lost in the largest and most brutal struggle yet at Shiloh. As Confederate forces fought to retain control of the Mississippi River Valley, they learned that they had underestimated the strength and resilience of the Union armies. General Grant officially forced the rebels into retreat and effectively weakened the enemy’s strength, leading to a campaign to recover the Mississippi River and the city of Vicksburg. Shiloh is perhaps one of the most important, and deadliest, battles of the war. The Tennessee Shiloh National Military Park is open year round with an Interpretive Center featuring exhibits on the battle’s importance, films and an award-winning movie, living history programs, and several guided tours leading you through the battlefield narrated by intensely informed guides.
Though there are dozens of other fiery battles that helped determine the Union’s eventual success, the final battlefield on this list has to be Gettysburg. Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania preserves the single bloodiest battle of the war and the location that ended General Lee’s campaign into the north. Gettysburg effectively determined the outcome of the war as the south marched with the intent of taking control of Union territory. Had they succeeded, it would have been supremely difficult and nigh impossible for the Union to regain control and the Confederacy may have won the war. As it happened, the combined total of casualties soared higher than 50,000 including more than a third of Lee’s army. The bloody site was the motivation for President Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, the charismatic speech that turned a devastating battle into an inspirational hope for a better future. At this historic park, visit the Gettysburg Cyclorama depicting “Pickett’s Charge,” see the film A New Birth of Freedom narrated by Morgan Freeman, and visit the Soldiers’ National Cemetery which is the final resting place of many fallen Union soldiers and was the site of Lincoln’s Address.
Museums are often the best way to get an interpretive look at the war as a whole and offer unique perspectives into both the Union and Confederate tactics, strategies, losses and successes over the course of the war. For a conclusive examination of the Civil War, the Atlanta Cyclorama and Civil War Museum is recommended. The world’s largest oil painting, the Cyclorama spans over 15,000 square feet and has a circumference of 358 feet. The painting depicts the Battle of Atlanta and features a fallen soldier fashioned after actor Clark Gable. Other exhibits include the full steam locomotive Texas which was part of the Great Locomotive Chase of 1862 as well as two floors of Civil War weapons, uniforms, documents, photographs, and dioramas.
The Civil War was a war of many firsts, including the first war to utilize the African American population in the armed forces. The African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington, D.C. celebrates the efforts of these soldiers and the fact that without their help, the war could not have been won. Exhibits focus on African American women and their involvement in the war effort, firsthand accounts of the war from soldiers, and African American spies.
Other destinations include the Lincoln Memorial which features quotes from the Gettysburg Address and lauds one of the greatest presidents of our nation and also Ford’s Theatre where President Lincoln was shot by Confederate-sympathizer John Wilkes Booth after the war’s end. The Andersonville Prison in Georgia where approximately 45,000 Union soldiers were held is another popular, poignant attraction as is the National Prisoner of War Museum located on the same national park.
The Civil War advanced our nation in more ways than one with improvements in battlefield medicine, military strategy, weapons, and more. The War Between the States revolutionized naval battles between ironclad ships, introduced the first military draft, and increased female involvement and responsibilities at home and in the war.
From a student’s perspective, the Civil War is a fascinating piece of history. From an American’s perspective, the Civil War was a patriot’s dream and nightmare, a struggle that pulled a dissolute collection of territories into a unified country that became a world power. Travel the United States to experience the Civil War firsthand and find a new respect for the struggle that shaped a nation.